Leaving Antarctica

27 January 2008

27 februari 2008

Friday the 22nd is a special day on board of the Anne-Margaretha: Frans celebrates his 70th birthday. We anchor at Port Lockroy the night before and after Frans goes to bed, the common room is decorated with balloons and a string of 70 pinguins; a creative initiative of Trudy and Bernard after a suggestion of Frans´s grand children. Anne bakes a birthday cake during her anchor watch which we enjoy tastefully for breakfast after singing Happy Birthday for Frans. Everybody is in a good mood because today Antarctica is showing itself from its best side; the sky is sparkling blue and almost cloudless. Last night during my anchor watch I even saw the moon lightening the surrounding hills and glaciers with a colony of twittering pinguins on the background; a brilliant experience.

After breakfast, we raise the sails and set course for the Melchior Islands, which is going to be our last anchor spot in Antarctica. It is a day of sun glasses, sun cream and binoculars. The ships moves quietly through the Neumann Channel to avoid the ice floes and icebergs. This is Antarctica! Pinguins jumping on both sides of the boat, the occasional seal relaxing on an ice floe and there, in the distance, the blows of a group of Humpback whales. As soon as we spot the whales, we set course for the blows and the engine is switched off. A sense of humbleness comes over me when I see these 18 meter long animals surfacing near the boat. We pull Heinz up in the mast in an attempt to take better pictures of these impressive animals. The animals play hide and seek with Heinz; when he´s at the right side of the boat, the animals appear at the left side and vice versa. And when he finally manages to catch them at the right side, his camera battery runs out. He swears. Luckily, 14 other people are also taking pictures.

The sun is low in the sky when we reach the Melchior Islands. Heinz and Allert take a ZODIAC to look for a good anchor spot. They find a beautiful small channel full of fur seals flanked by 50-60 meter of pack ice on both sides. That night we celebrate Frans’s birthday with a good meal, a lot of wine and funny games. The morning of the 23rd comes brutally when I am wakened at 5 am to lift the anchor because the boat is drifting. A familiar ritual follows: 30 minutes of pulling and pushing with a lever in order to lift the anchor manually because the hydraulic anchor pump is broken. When I come home, my biceps will be twice the size they used to be. After lifting the anchor, the waiting begins. We´re waiting for the wind to calm down so we can start our journey backwards over the Drake Passage. At 4 pm, the two ZODIACS are manned to release the hawsers from the shore. What follows is a chaotic departure in which almost everything goes wrong that can go wrong: lines slipping from winches, ZODIACs going over anchor lines and one of the ZODIACs is threatened by a 4 meters long sea leopard. The animals moves dangerously close to the ZODIAC with Allert and Bas who have their peddels ready in case the animal attacks. However, the animal seems to prefer pinguins and krill above Allert and Bas, and they get off with a fright.

When we´re finally loose the ship sets course for the Drake Passage. The swell is more strong than the first time and a lot of people are struck by sea sickness within 24 hours. It is amazing how the atmosphere on board changes at the moment we enter the Drake Passage. We were almost like a family in Antarctica, but now there is little room for socializing. Everyone is preoccupied with his or her own self and fights against sea sickness. The Drake Passage shows its darker side during this crossing. Waves of 10-15 meters, tons of water over the ship and wind speeds up to 55 knots. The doors of the huts are closed and God knows what happens behind them. I leave it to your imagination. Those who are not sick meet during their daily and nightly shifts. It is a tough ride, more so when a small storm hits us. It seems like Antarctica does not want to let us go. But after 3 days and nights, the storm dies down and there are only 150 miles left to Cape Horn. I am looking forward to a warm shower and an Argentine ´beef lomo´. Ushuaia, here we come!

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